Friday, January 4
I had a New Year dinner with Lauren and Elisha. It was a lovely time.
I shaved my light beard into a goatee. Oh yeah, it’s going to be a good winter.
Saturday, January 5
Saturday we would celebrate Mari’s birthday. I met her in Shinagawa (品川) and we visited a local aquarium. Mari likes dolphins and so we went to a dolphin show. It was the first dolphin performance either of us had seen. I was impressed. She was thrilled. The five dolphins jumped high out of the water and performed a variety of tricks. It was a great treat.
After the dolphin show we visited Minato-Ku to see the Tokyo Tower. Mari, like many local people, has spent her entire life in and around Tokyo. But she’s never visited the famous landmark. We made our visit just in time to see the city in daylight, watch the sunset and witness the night lights of Tokyo. I’ve visited the tower three times before but I always enjoys the view.
For dinner we walked to nearby Roppongi Hills. I had made reservations at a chic concept restaurant called Vegetable Sushi Poteger. It’s a sushi vegetarian sushi restaurant. All of the dishes are made using veggies and made to look like fish. It was a lot of fun just to look at the food. And the taste didn’t disappoint. I would recommend checking them out if you’re interested.
We finished the evening with a glass of wine. It was a nice day with the birthday girl. Already I’m starting to think about her next birthday!
Monday, January 7
I began my first long-term assignment in my new position. I left home early in the morning and caught a bullet train (新幹線) north to Akita (秋田). Akita is snow country. It’s on the other side of the country, both to the north and the west. It sits on the sea of Japan and receives lots of snow from eastern Siberia. I am to work and live in Akita for the next seven weeks. So I went north with a small suitcase, a pair of snow boots and heaps of optimism. I didn’t look back.
Akita, as I soon learned, is literally snow country. Literally. I arrived to near two feet (60 centimeters) of snow on the ground. It snows every day in Akita. Every day. Sometimes multiple times a day. Luckily the temperature hangs just below freezing. So it’s cold, but not too cold. The amount of snow was a welcome surprise. The “warm” temperatures were also nice. Nice compared to Nebraska.
After two weeks in Akita I’ve come to really enjoy the city. It’s a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. Life is slower here. Akita greatly reminds me of my hometown, Lincoln, Nebraska. The population is on par. It’s a college town. The cost of living is more moderate. It is clearly winter. The city is alive and well. It’s growing. It’s quiet.
Yet Akita is different from Tokyo and Lincoln in one key regard. People here stare at me. There are far fewer foreigners in Akita. So when I’m spotted, which is often, I turn heads. It’s not the flattering kind of head turning. You know the type, “Oh, who’s that handsome man?”
Rather it’s the open-mouthed, “Wow! A white person!”
Meh. Better too much attention than not enough!
Still though. I really do enjoy it here. I’ll be sad when it’s time to go back.
Saturday, January 12
Mari came all the way up to Akita to visit me. She came by airplane while I had come by train. A one hour trip for her and three for me. Clever girl. She was immediately shocked by the blanket of snow over the city. She’s a Tokyo girl and isn’t used to winter wonderlands.
With my girl in town we spent two days tramping all over the city. We visited a park and two shrines (神社). We ate the local food and ascended a nearby lookout tower on the Sea of Japan (日本海). It was really cool knowing China and Russia sat on the other side of the pond.
Monday was a holiday, Coming of Age Day, so Mari could stay an extra half day. Her flight was to leave in the afternoon and I secretly hoped something would prevent her from going home. How lucky I was. A freak snow storm slammed Toyko in the morning closing the domestic airport and crippling train lines. Mari was stuck in Akita an extra day. My wish came true!
Truth be told, Mari was not as excited as I was. She’s such a good employee. She was worrying about being late to work on Tuesday. I tried to reassure that it was beyond her control. The conversation went something like this:
Alex: “Woo-hoo, snow day!”
Mari: “Yeah, but what about work?”
Alex: “Yeah, snow day.”
Mari: “Alex, I need to—”
Alex: “ Snow day.”
Mari: “Listen to me!”
Alex: “Yes, that’s right. Snow day.”
I thought it was hilarious. She did not.
Tuesday morning came early and I took Mari to the bus station. She caught the first train out-of-town and arrived at work after lunch. Her boss said not to worry.
-Quest for Knowledge-
One trait I admire about the Japanese is their desire to learn. The passion first reached prominence during the Meiji Period. When the country opened to the world and desperately sought to catch up. Now this curiosity begins at a young age and carries through in great age. I respect education and I respect the person, in this case people, who pursue it.
The pursuit of knowledge comes in both formal and informal methods. Some purchase a book and teach themselves. Others prefer to get out and learn through experience. Still others join institutions. Countless industries have sprung up around education throughout the country. See: English schools.
All Japanese students study English, it’s mandatory. However many people are still interested in the language. Or interested in what they can achieve by using the language. Cue private language schools. English language schools are big businesses in Japan. Many people pay a pretty penny to learn at these institutions. That’s great. And it gives me a job too.
Yet others are content with visiting a bookstore or library. Studying alone is another great option for many people. Especially those with a hectic Japanese work life. Bookstores in Japan are a big business. So many people purchase books and read. They read. I feel like that’s a prime difference between the States and Japan. Japanese people enjoy reading a book. It’s refreshing. Have I mentioned the Japanese have one of the highest literacy rates in the world? A full 99% of the population is literate. (I think I’m the 1% that cannot read, darn Chinese characters.)
All told Japan is very intelligent society. The Japanese people, collectively, know a lot. And they want to know more. It’s comforting to live within a culture like this. Comforting indeed.